Last of the great chiefs of WWII is still going strong


September 13, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

A half-century has passed since that night deep in the South Pacific, when he heard that trembling, anguished voice over the ship's radio.

And the mere mention of it continues to haunt Arleigh A. Burke, the last of the great warrior chiefs of World War II.

The 92-year-old retired admiral sits in the library of the U.S. Naval Academy's superintendent, amid the fine carpets and antiques. He is soon transported to the darkened bridge of the USS Bunker Hill in April 1945.

He hears the voice of a young ensign whose destroyer has been attacked by kamikazes, the dreaded Japanese suicide planes. The ship's captain and executive officer have been killed. The ensign is now in command of the crippled ship.

"I have only been on this ship for a little while. I have been in the Navy for only a little while," the unknown ensign said, according to "Admiral Arleigh Burke," a biography by E. B. Potter. "I will fight this ship to the best of my ability, and forgive me for the mistakes I am about to make." The radio went dead.

Tears fill the old admiral's pale blue eyes, then spill down his cheeks. "There were a lot of people like that," he finally says, recalling a time when the "marvelous . . . was routine."

He came to the academy on a sweltering day last month to swear in John H. Dalton, class of 1964, as Navy secretary. Slightly stooped and supported by a cane, the 1923 academy graduate administered the oath on the steps of Bancroft Hall, the school's massive dormitory.

At an earlier reception, he took time to reflect on his lifetime of service.

During World War II, Captain Burke led a destroyer squadron known as "The Little Beavers" on daring night raids against the Japanese Navy, earning him the nickname "31-Knot Burke."

His ships swept through the Pacific taking part in the Marianas campaign, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf and Iwo Jima, names that are now part of Navy lore and rim the academy's football stadium in bold letters.

Along the way he acquired "one of most bemedaled chests in the Navy," according to Mr. Potter, earning the Navy Cross, two Distinguished Service Medals as well as a Silver Star for rescuing radio men from the flaming and smoke-filled interior of the Bunker Hill, following an attack by kamikazes and a Japanese dive bomber.

"The greatest moment is when you get into it," says the white-haired admiral, who lobbied hard to leave his Washington desk job as war raged in the Pacific. "Everybody wanted to get into it."

His career began with coal-fueled ships. He was an ensign stationed in Seattle when President Warren Harding's ship steamed past on its way to Alaska. In 1960, the same year Mr. Dalton arrived at the Naval Academy as a freshman, Admiral Burke was Chief of Naval Operations. He held the Navy's top military post for an unprecedented three terms and helped bring the service into the nuclear age.

He is the only person in Navy history to be present when a ship bearing his name was christened. The USS Arleigh Burke, the first of a new class of destroyer, was launched two years ago in Norfolk, Va.

Several of the men he served with now have their names etched on academy buildings: Mitscher Hall, Leahy Hall, King Hall, Halsey Field House.

"Mitscher was probably the best Naval officer I ever served with," he says, referring to Adm. Marc A. "Pete" Mitscher, a frail man who favored detective novels and was a hero of the Battle of Midway. "He's probably one of the most understanding men I ever knew. He appreciated the opinion of other people."

Of Adm. William F. "Bull" Halsey Jr., an officer renowned for his aggressive tactics, Admiral Burke curiously recalls a "shy man."

"He appreciated his people probably more than any other officer I ever served with," he says.

"What marvelous men that showed up in the war," he adds wistfully. "It gives you confidence in the Navy."

Later in his career, Admiral Burke found himself in a celebrated argument with President Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs invasion. When the Cuban attackers were bogged down on the beach under heavy fire from Castro's forces, Admiral Burke urged a U.S air strike.

The question of whether bombing would have turned a fiasco into a success was sharply debated by policy makers and still plagues historians. But the young president was vehemently against it.

"Burke," Kennedy snapped. "I don't want the United States involved in this!"

"Hell, Mr. President," the admiral shouted back, "but we are involved!"

Some historians have criticized Admiral Burke and other military leaders for their assessment of the CIA's ill-fated invasion plan. The admiral saw the plan as "weak" and "sloppy," according to his biographer, and later reproved himself for not stressing these views to the president.

When asked about the Bay of Pigs, an aide, Dr. Patrick Ward, immediately steps in and prevents a response. "The Bay of Pigs is one subject he prefers to leave to the history books," Dr. Ward explains later.

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